The online left is a very, very strange place. It’s full of people who are all urgently certain of how right they are and how wrong everyone else is. It’s loud and hostile, with minor ideological differences turning into over-dramatic schisms in bizarrely little time. Vast slices of it are chronically, toxically vigilant, waiting with unwholesome eagerness to be the one who gets to turn on or cast out someone else for a misstep. Dial all of that up to 11, and you get the tankies.
For those who don’t know, “tankies” are devotees of the strand of leftist thinking usually called Marxism-Leninism, the philosophy of Josef Stalin rather than the eponymous Marx and Lenin. An extension of this idea, Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, incorporates thoughts from Mao Zedong. They get the name “tankie” from their penchant for defending the less defensible actions of the Soviet Union and similar governments throughout history, in particular the mechanized (hence “tankie”) invasion of Hungary during its anti-communist revolt in 1956. In the modern era, long arguments about specific events from 70 years ago are far less salient than their modern corollaries. Tankies are, these days, characterized by their full-throated defenses of modern China and North Korea, which become more and more uncomfortable the clearer it becomes that some rather nefarious things are happening in those countries.
Here’s where I come in.
Watching the United States descend into fascism in real time and nervously aware of Canada’s pattern of following the southern winds, I became more and more disillusioned with the bounds of mainstream progressive politics, which seemed to offer only the most tepid challenge to those juggernauts and which seemed to itself get dragged rightward over the years. The people offering an actual vision of what a better future could look like were farther left than that, well into the ideological regions that I, as an American of Cuban descent who once lived in Miami, had been taught to hate and fear for my entire life. I learned a long time ago that almost every rejection of similar “gifts” from my forebears led me to greater happiness, understanding, and appreciation for reality, and I set about to explore them. At the same time, I dealt with massive personal upheavals that brought some people closer to me and others farther away, and that ended up inserting me into a new social group…that was teeming with tankies.
I was, for the most part, a lurker in those conversations. I wanted to learn how they thought and read their sources. I also found myself, temporarily, persuaded by some of their more conspiratorial tendencies, and I look back on the public posts I made from that period with mortification.
So what did I learn?
1. Tankies are exceptionally well-read.
People don’t come to tankiedom naively. Many tankies, including the ones I met, have devoted a great deal of time to reading the published works of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Ho, the Kims, and other Communist and adjacent leaders. This is a group that prides itself on its familiarity with this expansive canon and which regards this familiarity as an important part of its identity. Few people can claim the familiarity with (their region of) leftist theory that tankies routinely demonstrate. Other political persuasions can be a small part of who a person is, but to be a tankie is to claim a label, a hobby, and an identity.
As the tankies themselves see it, these leaders and writers successfully replaced prior social orders in their respective countries with Marxist-Leninist-derived structures and kept those structures from collapsing for decades, some to this day, and that makes them worth the read. Each leader, in their way, advanced the thinking of their predecessors and adapted it to a new context, and each provides insights into how to make a similar shift in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere. Every tankie has their own favorite—Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Kim Il-Sung are particularly popular—and splits between them based on whether one of the big names “counts” or not can be amazingly bitter.
This corpus of knowledge makes tankies difficult to argue with on an ideological level. Most people who oppose this position can’t or won’t fight tankies on this specific battlefield, preferring to argue against them in other ways, and the disconnect makes many conversations fizzle into incoherence before they can really happen at all. It also means that observing and even engaging with tankies can be surprisingly educational.
2. Tankies speak their own language.
There are a lot of buzzwords in tankie-dom, which make them sound very strange anywhere else. Anyone who disagrees with their specific twig of the tankie tree is a “revisionist,” the tensions within capitalism that make it innately unstable are “contradictions,” resolving a contradiction involves a “dialectic” of a “thesis and antithesis” leading to a “synthesis,” people who make common cause with the wealthy are “class traitors” who lack “class consciousness” and exhibit “false consciousness,” the developed world is better understood as the “imperial core,” on and on in amazing profusion. To people who are not at least cursorily familiar with the books and essays that first popularized these terms, engaging with a tankie can be more difficult to follow than reading a scientific paper in an unfamiliar discipline. Some of these terms are also found within the wider left, while others seem to be distinctive to this subset. Particular niches within tankie-dom also have their own terms, with “cultural revolution” being peculiar to Maoism and “Juche,” of course, being the name of Kim Il-Sung’s philosophy. Following along with a conversation among tankies is a bewildering experience for the uninitiated.
Like precise terms used in any other field, these have specific meanings that can’t be succinctly expressed in ordinary language. “Translating” tankie speech is thus not really possible any more than a lay version of a scientific text can carry the same meaning as the original. At the same time, this bevy of specialized words creates pre-made distance between tankies and other leftists, allowing them to dismiss their opponents as too ignorant to be worth considering. This is a handy dodge, given that tankies disagree with just about everyone else in some profound ways.
3. Tankies openly embrace conspiracy theories.
A core tenet of tankiedom, from random nobodies all the way to Canada’s Communist Party, is that stories of atrocities and privation in nominally Communist states are almost all fabricated, exaggerated, or misrepresented. Tankies spill amazing amounts of ink defending the legacy of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Stalin’s targeting of entire ethnic groups for forced resettlement in remote areas, and forced labor camps in Cuba. Although, in many of these cases, the links between these horrors and specific ideologies are tenuous at best, it’s important to them that not just the ideas, but the leaders be preserved as symbolic exemplars, and that means determinedly sanitizing their reputations. Sometimes, that means denying that the events happened at all, sometimes that means decrying common accounts as propagandistic misrepresentations (most famously of the incident at Tiananmen Square), and very often, that means arguing that the victims (such as of Stalin-era gulags and, lately, Chinese suppression of Uighurs and Kazakhs in the Tarim and Taklamakan Basins) deserve it. Often, various combinations of all three options are employed. The difference between their defenses and the mainstream narrative is chalked up to conspiratorial maneuvers by the CIA, the National Endowment for Democracy, right-wing historians funded by same, and more, all working together to make sure that efforts to diplomatically isolate and otherwise damage self-ascribed Communist governments work unopposed and prevent solidarity with them among their own countries’ workers. Participants in the conspiracy are often decided based on whether they echo the same line and not whether there is any evidence of actual collusion.
The more circumspect tankies will, when pressed, acknowledge that their favorite theorists have skeletons in their closets. The same people who deify Stalin and Mao can also be willing to acknowledge that Stalin’s bloody purges of the Russian armed forces were a black mark on his record and that many aspects of the Great Leap Forward paint Mao and his cronies as, at best, utterly ignorant of the reality of agricultural science and at worst intent on starving millions of people. One of their mottos is “critical support,” meaning a willingness to acknowledge missteps and flaws even in their favorites, but “critical support” rarely seems to extend to tankies acknowledging that someone with good ideas can still also do horrible things, or that the ideas themselves can have nasty consequences.
What I haven’t seen among the ones I shared space with is an embrace of more conventional conspiracy theories of the sort associated with right-wing fringe groups: no anti-vaxxery, no globalist antisemitism, no anti-fluoridation, etc.
4. Tankies are not as wrong as you probably think they are.
The thing is…I grew up in Miami. Radio y Televisión Martí, a radio and TV station run by the US government specifically to broadcast anti-Communist propaganda to and about Cuba, operates openly in Miami. It receives glowing editorials in Miami’s newspapers, Cuban-Americans delight in its continuing existence, and it is not secretive about its funding. The idea of the US government specifically manipulating narratives about a Communist state was an unadorned, openly acknowledged fact of growing up as a Cuban-American, more so in Miami than in the other places I have lived. Where the US government can get away with it, it proudly serves as the exact kind of conspirator that tankies place behind every negative story about Communist states.
Radio y Televisión Martí isn’t the only outfit of its kind, either. Reporters frequently cite its counterpart in Asia, Radio Free Asia, with regards to China’s activities in central Asia and Hong Kong despite its clear agenda. This group is currently posting deeply racist and disturbing content regarding the SARS-CoV-19 (novel coronavirus) outbreak, making reference to imperial Japanese invectives against Chinese people to hammer home its points and the fact that it is not a trustworthy source of information. Nevertheless, more respectable news outlets frequently cite this horror show, even after legitimate sources emerge to corroborate things that Radio Free Asia got right (seemingly by accident), preserving the idea of this borderline Nazi outfit as a reasonable source of information for the broader public.
Similarly, it doesn’t take too much of a deep-dive into history to unearth the long, long list of times that leftist governments, including many that were far more benign than the Soviet Union or Maoist China, fell victim to the covert operations of the United States government, or the ways that these narratives were sold to Americans. Virtually every independent country in the Americas features at least one American-sponsored coup in its history, to a one meant to remove an inconveniently leftist leader and replace them with an approximate or actual fascist, with the US crowing the entire way that it was preserving “democracy.” The US, likewise, has a pattern of disputing international elections if the winner isn’t sufficiently right-wing and praising them as legitimate in the face of severe irregularities if the winner is sufficiently right-wing, a pattern increasingly coming under scrutiny by election watchdog organizations. Even countries the US fails to overthrow often have to make crushingly hard choices to deal with international sanctions imposed specifically to make their people suffer. The idea that governments aimed at putting wealth in the hands of citizens rather than multinational corporations are constantly in the US’s crosshairs isn’t a conspiracy theory—it’s the undisputed modus operandi of multiple US agencies.
Perhaps most damningly, many of the most famous anti-communist talking points can be traced back to sources that clearly had no intention of presenting facts. For example, the highest death toll often attributed to the 1930s Ukrainian famine traces back to The Black Book of Communism, a political hit piece so transparently agenda-driven that all of its writer’s co-authors disavowed it and the writer after its publication. That there was a famine in Ukraine in the 1930s and that Stalinist policies made it worse is largely beyond dispute, but this book goes out of its way to inflate the scale of the famine in order to make the Stalin regime look especially bad, going so far as to count the decline in Ukrainian birth rates—people who were literally never conceived, let alone killed—after the famine as people killed by the famine.
And I’d be remiss in not mentioning that some groups widely held up as examples of leftist persecution around the world, such as the Falun Gong in China, are genuinely horrible people whose horribleness is intentionally concealed to promote the narrative of their persecution. It takes only one viewing of Falun Gong’s famous stage performance Shen Yun to figure out that this group, far from being a benign religious minority, is a right-wing anti-science cult akin to a cross between evangelical Christianity and Scientology, determined to encourage anti-leftist sentiment around the world.
The mouthpieces of the global West are waging a transparent and unrelenting propaganda war against the rest of us, and tankies are among the few people who are willing to point that fact out. Unfortunately for them, they take that thinking all the way to falling headfirst into other countries’ propaganda instead—or worse, the contrarian, omnidirectional anti-Americanism of sites like The Gray Zone.
5. Tankies have amazingly bad taste in media.
When they’re not digesting heavy tomes of 20th-century political philosophy like it’s a competition, tankies like to enjoy media produced by fellow tankies. And that media is, just, amazingly bad. Their podcasts and YouTube channels are clearly produced by people who think “production value” is a bourgeois plot, and their blogs make a habit of taking assertions by self-ascribed Communist leaders at face value and calling that a counter-argument to Western propaganda. Both often consist of long stretches of tu quoque and whataboutism rather than actual statements about what they value and why they value it, relying on little more than the idea that the West is innately suspect to claim rhetorical legitimacy. The whole of tankie media is hilariously amateur for a group that is so convinced of its superiority over other forms of leftism. And that’s when they’re not uncritically sharing The Gray Zone, whose only ideological line is that anything that the United States opposes is a good thing, shifting its approval as needed with the US’s whims—a pattern I came to recognize embarrassingly late.
6. They’re irrelevant LARPers, but they don’t have to be.
In the modern world, tankies in the United States and Canada aren’t dangerous. They’re irrelevant. They are a small, vocal, highly online minority nigh-universally scorned by other leftists, who have essentially no effect on the broader political discourse. The largest impact these people can hope to have is being held up as a weird ineffectual dilettantes by Natalie Wynn in her old videos, because…they’re weird, ineffectual dilettantes who don’t have much in them anymore but writing weird blogs, reading old books, and having a fetishistic relationship with the aesthetics of North Korea.
But it wasn’t always this way.
It wasn’t so long ago that the same leftist leaders who inspire the current crop of tankies inspired visionaries from Langston Hughes to Nelson Mandela to the Black Panthers, people who achieved genuine and remarkable changes in their communities and were not afraid to get their hands dirty to do so. It is not a coincidence that these same people were investigated or persecuted by the United States and its allies, or that they could be regarded as positive parts of dominant historical narratives only after the threat they represented to that order was long past. There was an actual, functional, effective far-left party in the United States before the same propaganda and persecution machine the US turned on Latin America destroyed it, and one of the few things tankies do with the potential to become legitimately valuable is attempting, poorly, to resurrect that level of political clout. One cannot grapple with this modern sect without recognizing that it is the warped ideological vestige of something that was once great and has fallen (or more accurately, been pushed) far, far away from that greatness.
Tankies are also the only strand of leftism I have come across that keeps its finger on one specific pulse of truth: that any incipient leftist society has to be able to defend itself from concerted efforts to destroy it from outside by both global capital and the United States. The history of leftism is littered with as many failures as it is because the United States and its allies dedicate enormous resources to sanctioning, isolating, attacking, and ending leftist societies, whether they are well-armed entire countries or anarchist sects that grow large enough to seem like a threat. Communes are little more than fantasies in this reality, allowed to exist as long as they never seriously threaten the existing social order, and movements to push existing political systems in better directions can only be as effective as the threat of violence underlying their protests and marches. The more palatable leftist tendencies virtually define themselves by refusing to engage with this fact and render themselves at least as irrelevant as the tankies in the process.
My time among the tankies was a fascinating experience. These people are an utterly fascinating combination of in touch with difficult truths and out of touch with reality, and other movements could stand to learn a few things from them while carefully avoiding their excesses. It’s impossible to understand the history of the political left without grappling with the exact thinkers and leaders that tankies obsess over, and impossible to move forward without understanding why those leaders failed and how they spawned their successors (whom tankies often dismiss as “revisionist”). Tankies will not be leading anyone anywhere, but the people who will make a better world would do well to pay attention to them, and never lose sight of both their unforced errors and their unpopular truths.
At least the hats are nice.